Report: Chronic homelessness reaches crisis levels in King County

May 19, 2021, 4:57 AM
homelessness, ballot initiative, ACLU lawsuit...
Homeless tent in Seattle. (J. Warne)
(J. Warne)

Chronic homelessness rose 42% annually in King County and 27% statewide, according to a new report from Challenge Seattle.

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“Our state is at a crossroad,” said Challenge Seattle CEO and former Washington Governor Christine Gregoire. “A global pandemic has deepened economic inequities and exposed the gaps in our health care systems, making the exit out of chronic homelessness even more challenging. This is a pivotal moment for the region. We cannot recover from COVID-19 without addressing the economic, healthcare, and inequity crisis that is chronic homelessness.”

The report states that King County has the second-highest rate of chronic homelessness growth in the United States. Homelessness also ranks as the top issue for county residents, with 42% saying it’s a leading priority and 91% saying that lawmakers need to redesign mental health and substance abuse treatment systems to truly reduce homelessness.

According to Challenge Seattle, around 4,000 mental health crisis calls are attributable to the chronically homeless population each year, but the system is designed to support only up to 2,000 through behavioral health crisis diversion. The report also says that individuals experiencing homelessness are booked into King County Jail at 45 times the rate of the general population.

While the Boston Consulting Group, which conducted the research, found that good progress has been made in addressing youth and family homelessness, existing policies and initiatives have not successfully addressed chronic homelessness.

But, there’s proof that it can be done. Other jurisdictions have slowed the growth of their chronically homeless population, including in San Diego County, which has more people than King County and has brought its growth rate down to 2%, the lowest among large West Coast counties.

“The data are clear: we must fundamentally change the way Washington state and the King County region address chronic homelessness, taking a more centralized, data-driven, and individualized approach that addresses people’s needs in real time with both housing and services,” Gregoire said. “The chronic homelessness crisis is a healthcare crisis, it is an economic crisis, and it is an equity crisis. Every day that we allow our neighbors to continue to live unsheltered, without the timely and necessary services, we are losing lives that could have been saved.”

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The report from Challenge Seattle also recommends six steps to make changes, including the creation of emergency housing, providing on-demand services, and establishing a command center with a focus on equity. Additionally, the report suggests employing qualified case workers and those with lived experience.

King County’s Health Through Housing program is consistent with these recommendations.

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Report: Chronic homelessness reaches crisis levels in King County